Basketball: NBA dazzles London to plug American dream

Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz turned on the style in London last night – when the marketing gimmicks let them, that is
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The Independent Online

In the end it is hard not to be wearied by marketing, however attractively packaged it is. To be fair to the National Basketball Association, however, last night's much-hyped exhibition match between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz in London was an attractive, if often seriously weird, package.

Perhaps the fact the NBA envies the riches currently being generated by the Premier League, especially in the much-coveted Asian market, should be a source of pride, because Americans present their sport so relentlessly, overpoweringly, migraine-inducingly well.

But tell that to the crowd, which made its way to Greenwich last night. Despite prices which the Premier League would dearly love to be able to charge – courtside seats £250, floor seating £150, minimum price elsewhere £35 – the O2 Arena was a sell-out, with many a young Brit there to see the Sudan-born Brixton-raised Luol Deng in the flesh.

Given Deng is something close to seven feet tall – rightly did one former coach remark that any American boy can be a basketball star when he grows up, and up, and up - there's a lot of him to see, but there had been a question mark over his fitness. But although a stress fracture in his right leg had prevented Deng representing Great Britain at the European Championships this summer, there was no way he wasn't going to show.

The C-listers were out to see him too. Half the professional footballers in London were courtside, with Spurs particularly well represented, but the Bulls started poorly, Deng of all people giving up an immediate interception. Not that it really matters when you only have to blink to miss a score. By the end of the first quarter the score was 27-26 to the Bulls, there had been two time outs, during which the Utah dancers strutted their stuff, the hyperactive mascots – a bull and something that looked like the wrath of God, but was apparently some sort of bear – had thrown T-Shirts to the crowd and listened to cheesy tunes being belted out on an organ. When it played 'If you're happy and you know it clap your hands', everybody did.

The entertainment in the break was even slicker. The Jazz Dunk team rolled out a couple of springboards and performed a series of such remarkably gymnastic, well, dunks, you had to watch the replays to believe your eyes hadn't deceived you.

The game, when it resumed, felt like a distraction. At the next time-out, a lad called Edward shot so many long baskets he won a trip to New York. He walked off wearing a smile and a Utah dancer on his arm.

The points kept coming, and so did the gimmicks. 'Disco cam', picking out whichever sap in the stands happened to be gyrating most ridiculously at the time. It was chaos, but even chaos can have a pattern, and the pattern was on the scoreboard, high above the court.

Another time out. Now it was about cheering to decide who had won a training shoe design competition. Forget it, the players were back.

Deng scored, to bring up the Bulls' 50. At half-time a woman on the tallest unicycle in the world balanced pots on her head, throwing them up with her feet.

Sated with brilliant nonsense, it felt as though the crowd would have happily settled to simply watch a second half in which Deng began to show why the Bulls signed him to a six year deal worth a basic $40m.

The time outs, also known as advertising breaks, kept coming though. A blindfolded woman had to find Elvis. Kiss Cam demanded embarrassed couples pucker up. Smile Cam – well, you get the idea.

The game, surely to no-one's surprise, went to the wire, before being won by Chicago with the final throw of the game by 102-101. Deng, of course, was the leading scorer.

No doubt when the NBA stage a regular season game here, as Commissioner David Stern insisted they would in either 2010 or 2011, the game will be decided purely on athletic merit. But there will still be a race between inflatables, and an awful, awful lot more besides.